ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Crocodile Tears

Unsafe and unmonitored boats are death traps for Assam's poor passengers.

The tragedy on the Brahmaputra River last week, when a boat carrying passengers from Dhubri to Hatsingimari capsized near Fakirganj in the western part of the state in a cyclonic storm, illustrates the continuing shocking neglect by state governments of transport facilities used by the poor. With 103 passengers dead and another estimated 250 missing, all one heard from the prime minister downwards to politicians in Assam was “grief” and “shock”. What was needed was grief and shock over the absence of steps which if they had been taken earlier could have avoided the tragedy. For, despite river transport being such an essential part of life in Assam, where people have to find ways to cross Asia’s largest river, the Brahmaputra, there is no mechanism to monitor the condition of the boats or the number of passengers that are crammed into them. The boat that capsized was 16 years old and had not been inspected even once. Additionally, as no one knows how many passengers were on the ferry, even the number of missing is a matter of speculation. Compounding the tragedy is the fact that the national media paid attention to it only because of the size of the death toll. It is unlikely to follow up on the event given its location – the north-east of India which is perpetually neglected.

The boat tragedy highlights the very low priority received by a form of transport that is widely used by the poor in that part of the country. The chief minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi, admitted this when he said that river transport was underdeveloped in comparison to road transport in the state. The lack of a bridge or rail link over the Brahmaputra means that passenger traffi c on the river’s waterways is one of the heaviest in the country. Thousands of workers and wage labourers have no option but to use this form of transport on a daily basis. Water transport in itself is not a problem as long as it is properly organised and the requisite safety measures are made mandatory and enforced. It is in fact the cheapest and if the right technology is used even the most energy efficient and environment-friendly mode of transport. The problem in Assam is the near total absence of enforcement of safety rules. According to the state’s opposition party leaders, the private ferry operators’ lobby has had a field day profi teering on vessels that are in a near-dilapidated condition. It is not diffi cult for them to procure fi tness certificates for very old and badly maintained boats. Most of these vessels run by the Inland Water Transport department and private operators do not even have chains or security railings, and passengers, motorcycles and small cars jostle for space during the 90-minute journey between the northern and southern banks of the river. As far as the boat that capsized was concerned, the villagers say that there were nearly 450 passengers in it and not 300 as claimed by the government. Most of these boats do not carry lifebuoys or any other emergency equipment. In almost every area, the private operators seem to have a free hand, including in the training given to the personnel who run these vessels. Complaints are obviously not heeded either by the operators or by the officials meant to monitor them. This state of affairs – lack of even cursory enforcement of rules and allowing a private lobby to operate like a mafi a– is chillingly similar to other tragedies that have an impact on the very poor, such as the periodic “hooch” (spurious liquor) deaths and the road accidents involving overcrowded private vehicles driven by undertrained and overworked drivers.

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